Sunday, December 21, 2008

A sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent

On blog break, but as promised, I am posting today's sermon.

I am sojourning at All Saints three Sundays a month till May or June -- back at St. Mary's next Sunday for my one Sunday a month there. All Saints is a wonderful worshipping community with a lot of kind, hospitable people. A special joy was giving communion to the children there. St. Mary's House doesn't have children these days (we are a combination "regular" congregation and university chaplaincy and the few families with children we had have moved on, especially as we have recommitted to our chaplaincy mission) and it's nice serving the young 'uns for a change. There are also quite a few elders at All Saints, though. I was at both liturgies, 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., and as is often the case, the early liturgy draws a lot of elders. And a zippy lot of elders they are! I'll be spending Christmas Eve at All Saints' as well. Then back home to St. Mary's House for the Sunday after Christmas.

I don't usually footnote my sermons, but this one was based on another I wrote three years ago and for which I did a lot of reading, so for the sake of honesty and interesting references, I've left the major notes in, the ones that have interesting references. Obviously they were not there in the oral delivery!! I love Beth Johnson's book on Mary, by the way, and recommend it highly.

4th Sunday of Advent (Year B, RCL)

December 21, 2008

All Saints Episcopal Church

Greensboro, North Carolina

Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

In the name of the God
Who was
Who is,
and Who is to come,

Have you noticed the people of Advent?It’s hard not to notice John the Baptizer,
that strange character with the raggedy clothes and
the strange eating habits, crying on the edge of the wilderness,
haranguing his contemporaries
and us.
He is squarely in the tradition of the prophets of Israel,
reminding people in a loud voice
of a God who calls them
and their institutions
to righteous living.
Prophets are not usually persons you’d want to have over for tea.
They are the not so gentle companions of Advent.

doesn’t harangue us.
We are observers from the outside,
hearing the story of the first appearance of Mary in Scripture,
perhaps envisioning already in our minds
our favorite Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation.

But Mary too is a prophet.
Do not assume she is only a soothing and innocent presence
on the way to the Christmas pageant.

I am always struck
by the way in which the conversation
between the angel Gabriel and Mary
parallels the conversation
between of God and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

You may remember the general pattern:
God calls the prophet. Usually by name.
The prophet says, “Here I am, Lord.”
Then God says, “Listen, here’s what I want.”

And in every case, this “here’s what I want,”
God’s will for the prophet,
involves a particular role within the community of believers
and some kind of proclamation of who God is for this community.

And then the prophet puts up a fight.

Jeremiah says he’s too young.
Moses protests that he is slow of speech.
Amos argues that he is only a herdsman
and a dresser of sycamore trees.[1]
Jonah doesn’t say anything; he just runs away.

Now Mary – Mary has basically the same thing happen to her,
and she does ask a minor question about how this sign from God,
this birth, can happen when she has no husband. A logical question!
But she doesn’t run off or avoid the call;
in fact, in the scene following the one we just heard,
the second act of the story of Mary,
she run toward someone
to begin proclaiming what she knows to be true.
And that someone is Elizabeth, an older woman filled with new life and new hope,

who is also a proclaimer of good news, a bearer of revelation.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to Nazareth.

The Mary we meet here is not Mary the mother,
as we will encounter her in just four days, in Bethlehem,
down South,
but Mary the young Galilean woman --
still in her northern hometown of Nazareth.

We don’t know much about Mary.
We don’t have facts and details about her early life,
or even about her life at the time we meet her
in today’s Gospel story.

In this she has much more in common
with the unknown people
of the first and the twenty-first centuries
than with those whose dwellings or divorces show up
in People magazine
or whose statements about war or money
make the front page of the newspaper
or prime time television news.

Mary has more in common
with the millions of people,
especially poor women,[2]
whose names we do not know
and whose lives
whose daily courage,
whose memories,
whose yearnings
we tend to overlook,
even though
they form the major portion
of our human family.

We do know that Mary came from Galilee.

Galilee was a backwater.
It was that place up north –
a good four days’ walk from Jerusalem
a little less if you had a donkey.[3]
We now know thanks to the work of archaeologists
that in Galilee there were several hundred villages,
and that Nazareth was a small village of maybe 300, 400 people.
It was off the main road, a place of no special importance.[4]

The economy in Galilee was heavily agricultural.
Joseph, to whom Mary was betrothed, was an artisan.
But he and his family would have also had a small plot of land
on which they grew some food – barley and wheat, grapes, olives.
Almost everyone did.

Galilee, even in the villages, was a crossroads of cultures.
In Mary’s daily life, the spoken language
was Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew.
Educated and business people spoke Greek.
The Romans, who had conquered the land
and still occupied it,
spoke Latin.
And in the synagogue,
the congregation to which Mary and Joseph belonged,
the language of scripture and prayer was Hebrew.

Still, Galilee in Mary’s day
was far from the circles of power,
though the power of the Roman empire did reach there,
in the form of a triple tax.
There was no middle class. Most of the people were poor,
living at what we would call subsistence level.
The rich and powerful
were a very small percentage of the population.
The story in the Gospel of Luke
is not about them. Not yet.

The second Book of Samuel,
from which we also heard this morning,
is about the powerful –and the famous.
Both books of Samuel are organized around the careers of Samuel, Saul, and David.[5]
An official prophet –a professional—and two kings.
They are stories of the people of Israel
But they are also very much the story of God.
Woven throughout the many tales and adventures of the prophet and the two kings
are God’s attempts “to maintain or [to] recreate a relationship of loyalty
between God and [God’s] people.”[6]

The second book of Samuel is very concerned about institutions.
By the time we get to today’s story,
David has ascended to the thrones of both Judah, the little country in the South,
and Israel, the little country in the North.
He settles in Jerusalem, which is now the capital of the newly united kingdom.

And into the story comes
Nathan the prophet, who gets a little visit from the Lord at night.
Nathan hears from God
for David
a promise that appears to be unconditional:
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever
But it’s a little deceptive.
As is often the case today,
you need to read around and underneath the sound bites and the official statements
to get the bigger story.

If you read on in the Second Book of Samuel
you’ll see that humans keep behaving
like humans.
King David, the great king,
gets involved in a good dose of treachery, adultery, plots of murder,
and a few other things that make us love him and hate him
for his larger than life humanity
and also make us wonder
why he gets touted as Joseph’s ancestor.
Certainly not because he is a model of virtue!

Read on in the Second Book of Samuel, and beyond,
and you’ll see that the house of David
isn’t exactly what we would call secure.
A generation or two after today’s story, things start falling apart.

Now, kingship arose at least in part out of people’s need for security;
And humans
–all of us, from Galilee to Greensboro—
crave security.
Give me an answer! Give me a formula!
Give me a strong leader!
Give me an economic miracle!Give me a new technological toy!
Give us a nice clean war!
Give us well defined gender roles!
Give me a quick fix!
Give us ten steps to prosperity or
peace of mind or
firm abdominal muscles!

The major message in the second book of Samuel
is not that the king is the source of the people’s security.
It is that God alone is sovereign.
God alone offers security.
All institutions are relative.

Generations later, the story in the Gospel of Luke tells us,
After destruction, exile, and many other empires,
in the days of the Roman Empire,
a descendant of David now living in this backwater of Galilee,
a descendant named Joseph
is betrothed to a young woman named Mary.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed.
That’s not like being engaged in the contemporary sense.
It had what we would call legal status.
It really was the first of two stages of marriage.

So we know that Mary was from Galilee
in the days when Rome reigned.
We know that she was betrothed to Joseph.

We also know that Mary was Jewish.
As was Joseph. As was Jesus.
They were observant Jews,
living their faith within the rhythms of ordinary life,
daily and weekly,
faith in the one sovereign God.[9]

And this faith,
“belief in one God
whom no graven images could capture
clashed” with the new god who was about in the land:
Caesar, the emperor,
“full of power [and] glory.”[10]
Roman religious belief
was inseparable from Roman politics.
The Lordship of Caesar
was on a collision course
with the religion of Judaism.

Another few things of which we can be fairly certain:
there is a good chance
that Mary was very young.
Girls were betrothed around the age of twelve,
maybe thirteen, fourteen. Probably not much later.
And Mary was likely brown-skinned,
like most people in the region,
and muscular
from the labor she performed
outdoors and indoors
and which was a lot more strenuous
than pushing a vacuum cleaner.

So Mary, a brown-skinned, muscular,
working-class Jewish girl from Galilee
is sitting around one day
minding her own business (or maybe not)
as happens in biblical stories,
and sometimes in other places too,
an angel shows up.

Shalom! Says the angel. Greetings!

Angels don’t have a translation problem, have you noticed?
They are messengers from God
who speak in the language of the person they happen to be visiting.
We can assume they are a multilingual lot.
Shalom, says the angel.
YOU are special to God,
and God is with you.

“Huh?” thinks Mary.

Or as the text says in our contemporary translation
...she was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

In other words,

Mary was not someone likely to be singled out.
She was not one of the truly destitute or the most marginal:
she was betrothed to an artisan; she had a place to live;
but she was an ordinary girl in an ordinary village.

“Hello, Mary! I’m here for you!
I’ve got a word from God!”

Mary is still digesting this one,
and then comes the big news.

“You’re going to have a baby, Mary.”

And it’s not Joseph’s baby.
This child announced by the angel
is not what we would call legitimate.

Anticipating Mary’s reaction,
the angel reassures her,
invoking her people’s history,
talking of thrones, of David the royal ancestor,
of a kingdom that will have no end.

Being a smart Jewish girl,
though probably illiterate,
Mary says
How can this be, since I am a virgin?[12]
Or as the original text says much more eloquently,
How can this be, since I do not know a man?[13]
And somehow satisfied with the angel’s answer,
willing, somehow, to say,
“All right, God, I’ll do it,”
Mary the prophet goes forward.

hold together
the angel
and the village,
the message from God
and one particular, ordinary, daily life,
history writ large
and history writ small.

Here in Greensboro,
it’s four days before Christmas in another kind of empire.
One in which
we, like Mary, are not living in the centers of power,
but where the centers of power reach us.
In this empire as in the earlier ones
institutions and their leaders fail us:
corporations, investment banks, government,
the military, schools, even churches.

We in this American empire
are about to celebrate the birth of Jesus
and we look also in this season of Advent
to Jesus’ coming again
at the end of time.

And what do we do,
as we prepare for this?

We contemplate Mary.

We remember her as the human being she was,
in the little we know of her and her surroundings.

This is a much deeper and more challenging mystery
than if Mary were either the ideal woman
or the feminine face of God
or an archetype or a model
or even the ideal disciple.

“As with every human being, as with every woman,”
[as with every girl, every boy, every man,]
“[Mary] is first and foremost herself.”[14]

I am not saying that we can’t also appreciate Mary as a symbol.
But Mary is and remains
“truly our sister,”[15]
“a concrete human being”[16]
“....who acted according to the call of the Spirit
in the particular circumstances of her own history.”[17]

This is no reason for us to toss our Fra Angelico reproductions in the trash bin
Or to take the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe down from the wall.

On the contrary, perhaps they, along with other images,
can help us to remember that Jesus,
true God among us
and truly human,
was the son
of a truly human mother,
a particular mother
in a particular place.

For some reason
God loves history.
God loves our history.
God lives in our history
through us,
with us.

It is in that history that Mary will go off to visit Elizabeth,
And that she will cry out in song
That the God of promise will turn the world upside down,
That the hungry will eat,
That the powerless will be filled with new strength,
That the mighty will tumble from their proud thrones,
A message worthy of the prophets
Of Mary’s people Israel.

My friend Gene Rogers,
Who teaches at UNCG, has written a book in which
he comments on an ancient hymn about Mary
from the Christian East
And here’s what he says of her:
As a woman of low estate, she opens up a time for justice;
as a willing recipient of the Spirit, she opens up a site of joy.
In preparing the justice of God’s realm, she plays the role of the prophet

The Gospel on this fourth Sunday of Advent asks us:
Are we ready
with Mary our sister
to open up a time for justice?

Are we
willing recipients of the Spirit?
The Spirit!
Not the shortcut solution.
Not the security for which we hunger.
Not the ordinary exercise of power.
The power of the Spirit -
the Spirit of God
the one with the messages in the middle of the night
the one with surprise visits in broad daylight
the one who visits the backwaters of conquered lands.

Are we ready
to open up a site of joy?

Are we willing
as Mary was willing
to be that place
where God lives
and where, make no mistake,
neither Mary nor we
will serve as passive incubator
for a pop-up Jesus?

Will we be
a living, breathing, choice-making site of joy,
a real being who makes room for the action of the Holy Spirit
whatever it is?
At a really inconvenient time?

Think about it:
This woman –we would call her a girl– is virtually married.
And in what form does the Spirit show up?
A baby who’s not her husband’s.
Let’s see. In her historical context
she could lose
her husband,
her economic support,
her reputation,
even her life.

Never mind the how the pregnancy happened
Look at what the fact of Mary’s pregnancy says:
God is really really inconvenient.
And really risky.
And really close
to us.

flesh of Mary’s flesh
flesh of our flesh
is coming soon.

And the angel
in some form, in some voice, in some manner,
will come to us
as the angel came to Mary
and ask
the Advent question of God:

Will you bear my word to the world?
This world?
Will you hold my word in your heart?
This heart, your heart, in this time in history, in this place,
in your skin, in your faith, in your life?

Will you share my word with the world ?
Will you
open up a time for justice
in this place, in this empire?

Will you
be a willing recipient of the Spirit?
Will you open up a site of joy?
Will you, with the help of the Spirit
risk being a prophet?

Says the angel with the Advent question of God,
Will you
bear my word to the world?



[1] A dresser of sycamore trees is someone who makes little cuts in the sycamore fruit so that they can grow to be edible. It was a lower-class job in the low-class food business; sycamore fruit was for people too poor to afford dates.
[2] Elizabeth Johnson makes note of this when introducing Mary’s Galilean context. Elizabeth A. Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003),137.
[3] Johnson, Truly Our Sister, 172.
[4] Ibid.,141.
[5] Jo Ann Hackett, “1 and 2 Samuel,” Women’s Bible Commentary, expanded edition, ed. Carol A Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 91.
[6] David Gunn, “2 Samuel,” Harper’s Bible Commentary (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 287.
[7] 2 Sam 7:16.
[9] See Johnson, Truly Our Sister, 165.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Luke 1:29
[12] Luke 1:34, New Revised Standard Version.
[13] Luke 1:34, literal translation from the original Greek. This also happens to be the King James Version’s translation, which is not always the most accurate, but which in this case is closer to the text.
[14] Johnson, Truly Our Sister,101.
[15] While the phrase “truly our sister” comes from Pope Paul VI, Johnson also notes in the frontispiece of her book that several women theologians, whose writings evoke the words and beliefs of grassroots women in Mexico, Korea, Brazil, and the United States, refer to Mary as a sister.
[16] “[T]he proposal to interpret Mary within the company of the saints entails this corollary: First and foremost Mary is not a model, a type, an archetype, a prototype, an icon, a representative figure, a theological idea, an ideological cipher, a metaphor, a utopian principle, a feminine principle, a feminine essence, the image of the eternal feminine, an ideal disciple, ideal woman, ideal mother, a myth, a persona, a corporate personality, an everywoman, a cultural artifact, a literary device, a motif, an exemplar, a paradigm, a sign, or in any other way a religious symbol. All of these terms are drawn from contemporary religious writing. To the contrary, as with any human being, as with every woman, she is first and foremost herself. I am not saying that the contemporary human imagination cannot make use of her in a symbolic way. But it is the luminous density of her existence as a graced human being that attracts my attention. As Rahner argues, ‘We, however supremely elevated our spiritual nature may be, still remain concrete historical beings, and for this reason we cannot consider this history as something unimportant for the highest activity of our spirit, the search for God.’” Johnson, Truly Our Sister,101.
[17] Johnson, Truly Our Sister, 42-43.
[18] Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the Modern West (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), 104. For my own rhetorical purposes, I have left out of this quote from Rogers’ elaboration on Hymn XI of Romanos the Melodist a fourth point, which immediately follows the three I quote: “In preparing the joy of God’s realm, she plays the role of patriarch.”


Grandmère Mimi said...

Will you bear my word to the world?
This world?
Will you hold my word in your heart?
This heart, your heart, in this time in history, in this place,
in your skin, in your faith, in your life?

Oh my, Jane! What challenging questions? And what a lovely sermon. How I'd love to hear you preach it.

pj said...

Bravo, Jane! Just gorgeous. Poetic, political, and erudite. And I too would love to hear you preach it!

One of these days... :)

FranIAm said...

I was struck by so much of this but very much by the lines that Mimi quotes.

Oh my dear Jane, what a gift.